Farewell Chet Faker, hello Nick Murphy – singer-songwriter is ready to show his true self at Laneway Festival in Singapore
The Faker mask gave Murphy the confidence to put himself in the public eye – and now he’s ready to go out there as himself
The past 12 months have been tumultuous ones that saw the world irrevocably turned inside out. That, at least, is how indie singer Nick Murphy sees his 2016.
While the world in general was mourning the loss of heroes and the arrival of new demons, the Australian artist formerly known as Chet Faker was busy transforming his career, dropping his stage name in favour of his real name and tinkering with his music to metamorphose from cult troubadour into one of the world’s pre-eminent singer-songwriters.
The purveyor of electro-soul with a peculiarly world-weary tone went upbeat with acclaimed new tracks, toured the world and established himself as one of indie’s biggest festival draws. Which is why he’s headlining Singapore’s edition of the Laneway Festival on January 21, just two years after playing on a smaller stage at the same event.
“Something happened but I haven’t quite figured it out yet, to be quite honest,” Murphy says over the phone from New York, a note of exhaustion in his raspy voice after recently completing a gruelling series of gigs around the US. “It was just a really big year for me. I guess the dust settled. There was something about the year that I felt settled and was able to see myself and my whole life clearly and I think that’s what contributed to the music shift.”
There was no life-changing event, no epiphany, no crisis. Just the latest growth spurt in Murphy’s progression from Melbourne bedroom crooner. The result has been rave reviews on the serious music blogs and news sites and a string of high-profile gigs, including one in Sydney’s most spectacular setting, the Opera House.
“It hasn’t been a conscious thing – I didn’t wake up and think I’m gonna do a new sound,” he says. “It just crept up on me. It surprised me as much as it surprised anyone else.”
Murphy first hit the airwaves in 2011 when his update on Blackstreet’s R&B classic No Diggity took the electro dance scene by surprise, went viral online and won accolades at Australian music awards. He surprised again when his follow-up tracks revealed a more melancholic and contemplative, though no less soulful, artist.
A vocal performance for a Super Bowl TV ad won him exposure in the US, giving him more traction as he recorded his debut album, Built on Glass, which was released in 2014.
If Murphy’s rise has provided a positive counterpoint to the events that shaped 2016, the 29-year-old singer thinks he may know why. “It’s been such a bizarre year – there are arguments that through hard times we learn more about ourselves,” he says. “I’m sure that has something to do with it. When things are bad you think about it – you ask yourself why you feel bad and you learn about yourself.”
It’s the feeling of settlement that led Murphy to ditch the stage name he’d adopted partly as a joke at the start of his career five years ago, as a nod to his favourite jazzman, Chet Baker. By September he decided he was comfortable with who he was and what he was doing. It was time to remove the mask he’d used to hide his insecurities.
“There’s an evolution happening and I wanted to let you know where it’s going,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “The next record will be under my own name, Nick Murphy. Chet Faker will always be a part of the music. This is next.”
That next record was Fear Less, followed soon after by Stop Me (Stop You), which both amped up the electronica, intensified the beats and deepened the atmospherics. The smouldering vocals remained but there was a directness about the new songs that his debut album lacked.
“From the stage they seem to be enjoying it just as much [as the old material],” Murphy says about taking the new music to a live audience. “The new stuff has been really cool to play. It actually translates better live, I think. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve been touring, whereas I wasn’t touring when I wrote the album.”
Murphy is the latest star to emerge from a nation that has led the way in inventive and original music over the past few years. From Tame Impala’s psychedelic pop to Sia Furler’s chart smashes, Australia is bursting with great new music. Many, including trippy groovers Jagwar Ma and garage rockers King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, will join Murphy on the Laneway stage later this month.
At the underground level too, the land Down Under is leading the way, with the grungy folk of Courtney Barnett and the lysergic dream pop of Flyying Colours winning fans all over the world.
Ever the bar-room philosopher, Murphy has his take on his home country’s musical evolution.
“Australia was a bit strapped for an identity being a young country – at least that’s how I felt when I was younger; it wasn’t cool to be too huff and puff about national pride. But it seems to have shifted in the last few years,” he says. “A few artists broke overseas. Once people from Australia saw that this was dope, their sense of pride opened up inside – it was finally given an excuse to come out.
“This mass takeover by Australian music has contributed to Australian kids thinking, ‘Yeah I can take this seriously’.”
Murphy’s own seriousness as an artist is often hidden by what might be called a typically bluff Aussie character. While the tone of his voice is often lugubrious, his conversation is anything but – he can be charmingly self-deprecating and has a fine line in jokey rejoinders. But he peppers his conversation with references to art philosopher and painter Wassily Kandinsky and he’s not averse to a pregnant pause as he forms his thoughts for a considered response.
It seems natural, then, that he’s looking forward to the Asian show in Laneway’s meandering schedule, his first in his “home region” since reverting to his birth name, for the opportunity to revel in foreign cultures. “Culture shock is an amazing thing,” he says.
When it comes to discussing his eagerly anticipated next album, though, the philosophical Murphy has to give way. “When you ask how ready it is, the answer depends on your definition of ‘ready’,” he deadpans. “Let’s say it’s well beyond the planning stage, but is more of a general framework at the moment.”
St Jerome’s Laneway Festival takes place in Singapore on January 21